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Tech roundup: The next step for robot delivery might be a small one

Presto is the latest company to unveil a short-distance riff on the service. Also, Waitr rebrands as ASAP, Fuku joins Kitchen United and Selena Gomez invests in Gopuff.
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Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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Another tech company has jumped into robotic food delivery, with its own spin on the growing technology.

Presto, a provider of digital ordering products for restaurants, is partnering with robot delivery company Ottonomy to use its rovers to carry food over short distances—namely, from the kitchen to the curb.

Presto CEO Raj Suri told me he thinks this is the right application for delivery bots right now, rather than last-mile deliveries on sidewalks or roads.

“I think there’s just too much risk, too much complexity, too many edge cases” with long-distance delivery, he said.

A recent tweet purporting to show a fleet of delivery robots stuck in the snow in Estonia is just one example.

In Presto’s model, Ottonomy bots handle a minor but necessary task that frees up staff to do other things, Suri said. Curbside customers and delivery drivers can get the food in no more than two minutes, with no human labor required besides loading the meal into the bot.

The partnership is currently in a pilot phase, but he said the technology is “ready today” and that Presto has already gotten a lot of interest. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about DoorDash’s take on autonomous delivery. The company said it plans to use robots to deliver batches of orders from restaurants to a central hub, where the food is picked up by human drivers and taken to consumers’ homes.

These more limited use cases suggest that last-mile robot delivery may have a long way to go before getting to scale. There has been a lot of investment and activity in the space recently, but we have seen very few, if any, examples of it beyond the pilot stage.

Waitr is buying a cannabis business for $90 million and rebranding as ASAP. The small delivery company said last week it was acquiring Cova, a provider of POS and other software for marijuana dispensaries, for $90 million. It is the latest piece of Waitr’s plan to create a weed delivery marketplace. About 2,000 dispensaries in Canada and the U.S. use Cova. Waitr can now market it to other dispensaries and use the system as a foundation for weed delivery if and when that becomes more widely allowed.

As part of its expansion beyond food delivery, Waitr is changing its name to ASAP, the company said. It has acquired ASAP.com and plans to change its ticker symbol on Nasdaq ASAP.

David Chang’s Fuku chicken concept signed with Kitchen United. The partnership kicked off last week at KU’s newest ghost kitchen facility in Santa Monica, Calif., and comes after Fuku ended its agreement with ghost kitchen provider Reef. 

The upscale chicken brand will be a tenant in KU’s nine existing locations as well as future ones. Nine more kitchen centers are slated to open by January, in California, Texas and New York, doubling KU’s footprint in the space of a month.

Selena Gomez is investing in Gopuff. The singer and actress did not disclose the size of her stake in the delivery company, which offers convenience items, groceries and even hot meals from a network of microfulfillment centers. But she will become a “strategic partner” of Philadelphia-based Gopuff, recently valued at $15 billion. The news was first reported by Fortune. Gopuff made a move into the restaurant space earlier this year with Gopuff Kitchens, which offers made-to-order meals for delivery only.

Flytrex gets the OK to expand drone deliveries. The company’s drones will now be able to travel in a 1-mile radius around all three of its launch stations in North Carolina thanks to approval from the FAA. The wider area means it’s allowed to fly over people and moving vehicles and expands its total coverage to 10,000 households. Customers can order from a variety of stores and restaurants using the Flytrex app. 

Reef hired a leader for international growth. The ghost kitchen company last week named Ramez Shehadi as its president of international and chief growth officer. Shehadi was previously Facebook’s managing director for the Middle East and North Africa. He will help guide Reef as it expands into international markets including the Middle East.

Nextbite is adding a former Yum and Subway exec as an advisor. Sunil Sudhakar will help the virtual brand company continue to grow its brands and restaurant partners. He was most recently VP of global operations for Subway and also spent more than 20 years at Yum Brands including nearly six as director of operations for KFC in the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.

D. Wade Burgers inked a deal to expand with WingHouse. Starting in 2022, the virtual brand backed by former NBA star Dwyane Wade will be offered by 20 locations of the casual-dining chain throughout Florida. It’s part of a combined 80 locations planned for the delivery-only burger brand by the end of January. D. Wade Burgers and it’s sister concept UD Wings are under the umbrella of Combo Kitchen, which helps connect virtual brands and restaurants.

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